Realm of Shadows

Realm of Shadows (2024)

Realm of Shadows opens with portentous text about the ‘Dagger of Destiny‘, said to have pierced Jesus’ side, and to grant powers of world conquest to whoever, male or female, possesses it, in the service of either good or evil. Then the voice of the unseen Father Dudley (Tony Todd) can be heard saying, “I have failed you, I never wanted this for your son”, as though he were addressing God Himself about Jesus, before adding, “but I didn’t know how to stop it, the beast within” – and the opening credits appear over the image of a full moon, and some colourful wall graffiti of Universal monsters, devils and a Poesque raven.

In other words, the prologue is a wild mixture of messages, as Realm of Shadows all at once situates its own narrative, or more precisely narratives, within a much longer, perhaps eternal, conflict between primal oppositions of sex, morality and religion, while also announcing its connections to different strands of gothic horror. This is confirmed by the opening frame story for what will turn out to be a series of inset tales. In it, a punkish Sisterhood, syncretising worship of the Moon, Earth (‘Gaia’), the Devil and Hindu goddesses, carries out a ritual to reincarnate Kali in a club’s basement, while “halfway across the country” a bishop (Mel Novak) and a priest (Michael S. Rodriguez) try to stop them remotely through prayer (and a hidden camera). Here we have men and women engaged in a kind of spiritual battle, all on Walpurgis Night – and the titles of the the film’s different chapters take lettered form on the Sisters’ ouija board.

Several of these chapters (the wraparound story, Abashed, Cadaver) are directed (and all at least co-written) by Jimmy Drain (who also plays multiple rôles), while others are helmed variously by Tim Keller (Mallick’s Deamlady, Hike), Lewis Leslie (The Initiation of Professor Kimmer) and Brian McCulley (Meet Michael, Fate Upside Down). In the first, Mallick’s Dreamlady, lonely, lovelorn Mallick (Drain) is advised by his rakish friend Hicks (Tony Tucci): “You’d better learn how to close.” What Hicks means is that Mallick must master the art of getting a woman from the barroom to the bedroom, but Hicks’ words resonate more broadly in a series of stories practically defined by their loose ends and lack of closure. Does Mallick merely imagine that, with help from the devilish new bartender (Mike Apple), he bewitches dreamgirl Donna (Leah Saxon) and ends up sleeping with her and then unable to shake her, or is the real delusion his getting together with bartender Sarah (Heather Tocquigny) whom he genuinely likes and hopes to marry? It is hard to be sure – although what is clear is the conflict in his desire, like a battle between tempting lust and true love.  

Such conflict and such uncertainty pervade these stories. The second chapter Hike is a direct sequel to  the first without really resolving anything, as Mallick’s fantasies prove difficult to distinguish from reality. In a later chapter, The Initiation of Professor Kimmer, the compromised college teacher Daniel Kimmer (also played by Drain) will set his class a vacation essay on the question “What is reality?”, even as his own marriage to Jaime (Emily Absher) proves a sham, and different aspects of his professional life are being manipulated by her secret coven. Meanwhile the dialogue-free, mostly monochrome Abashed, styled as a silent movie, similarly shows a loving Christian couple threatened by drugs and witchcraft. Here reality is up for grabs, much as Cadaver equivocates over whether Peggy (Ashe Medina) murders her own newborn because she has been driven mad with abandonment and rejection, or because she has literally danced with the devil – or at least with devilish choreographer Jon Beedham (Caustic Scifidelic, who also scores much of the film). 

Drain returns again in Meet Michael, this time as Robby, patriarch of a household simultaneously invaded at night by a monster and protected by a saintly figure – both of whom only Robby’s imaginative young daughter Gaylen (Mara Davala) claims to see. In Fate Upside Down (which blends animation and live action), Drain plays yet another character, also called Robby, whose inner conflicts are figured by his lycanthropic status, making him all at once beast and the man whom Father Dudley (Todd) believes should be the one to wield the Dagger of Destiny. That Dagger will recur in the final part of the wraparound story, this time in the hands of the coven-leading singer Nalum (Erika Monet Butters) – but the battle for which that bladed relic is being drawn is endlessly deferred (or reserved for a sequel), as the different sides ranged against each other, the ‘feminist’ conspiracies and male cabals (there is even a ‘Brotherhood of the Sun’ to match the ‘Sisters of the Moon’), seem locked into a state of eternal equilibrium.

“This isn’t over,” Jaime screams at her husband from a holding cell near the end of her episode. Drain’s anthology really never is over, reconfiguring its own flaws and imperfections as recurrent manifestations of its thematised incompleteness, and finding in its equivocations and irresolutions a contradictory synthesis of the sacred and the Satanic. Sure it is scrappy around the edges, and the low budget often shows, but this peculiar mosaic of interlocking myths is full of ideas, demanding that viewers put its pieces together for themselves and close, at least in the imagination, its diabolical deal.

strap: In Jimmy Drain’s Satan-thology, recurrent themes, locations & cast limn an eternal, polarised struggle in search of elusive closure

© Anton Bitel